Epithets, Legends, and Lessons: Early English Royalty and the 21st Century


Brandon M. Bender (@brandonmbender4) is the author of England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. His medieval history research has been featured in Rounded Globe and Rex Factor and he has also published work on US history. Here, he muses on how modern political and social discourse in the UK, Ireland, and the US still relies on shorthands derived from the early medieval rulers of England.


The earliest monarchs of England might not be as famous as their more recent counterparts, like the Plantagenets and the Tudors, but the memorable nicknames and legends surrounding them are still commonly referenced today. An unpopular politician might be derided by attaching “the Unready” to their name. Someone perceived as disconnected from reality might be compared to Cnut trying to command the tide. The dubious but widely-known tale of Alfred and the cakes might be used to illustrate a point about “fake news.” The stories behind these nicknames and legends are often surprising, though, and many of them are not what they seem, even if the versions used in modern discourse suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, modern allusions to those three giants of pre-Conquest English history – Alfred, Æthelred, and Cnut – remain commonplace and easy to understand even a thousand years later. They serve as convenient shorthand when discussing relevant modern events, from politicians to pandemics, regardless of whether they’re being invoked by professional writers or the general public.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of early English royal nicknames is that they don’t often suit the people they are attached to. Edgar the Peaceful wasn’t all that peaceful, Edward the Martyr wasn’t martyred, and Edward the Confessor was pious, but not unusually so for a king of his era. The king whose name has seen the most use in modern culture, however, is Æthelred the Unready. Æthelred was only a child when he assumed the throne, but his epithet has nothing to do with him being unprepared for power. It’s actually an early English pun: the name Æthelred meant “noble counsel” in Old English and unraed meant “no counsel.” There is no evidence that the pun was used on the king during his lifetime, but in hindsight, it became a quick way for Old English speakers to playfully acknowledge the irony of the reign: a man named for “noble counsel” was betrayed by nearly everyone around him. Eventually, Æthelred Unraed was corrupted into Æthelred the Unready, contributing to the king’s current status as a synonym for gross incompetence, even though Æthelred was an accomplished legislator and a capable soldier.


A colour depiction of Æthelred the Unready sat on a throne in a crown, holding a large sword.
Æthelred the Unready. Illumination, c.1220.

Today, Æthelred’s epithet is used so frequently that it’s almost a rite of passage for prominent politicians to be saddled with the nickname by their detractors. Today, though, the nickname does not usually carry the humorous, punning nuance it once did; it is used almost exclusively to refer to someone who is incompetent and unprepared. Normally this consists of little more than pasting “the Unready” after said figure’s first name, which seems to be sufficient for making one’s allegiance known. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is one current target for the nickname, although it’s significant that this is not a purely British phenomenon. In a 2016 opinion piece, US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is called “Hillary the Inevitable” right after Æthelred, the “famously tardy English king,” is invoked.

After the 2016 US presidential election, the title of “the Unready” was passed on to President Donald Trump. One of the most original and sustained of these Trump-Æthelred comparisons comes from a Twitter account known as “Donaeld the Unready” (@donaeldunready), with nearly 90,000 followers at the time of writing. Since 2017, the Donaeld account has been posting Trumpian tweets with a medieval twist, portraying the president as a moody and erratic medieval ruler who is concerned with “fake chronicles” and wants to “Make Mercia Great Again.” When in character, the account’s author is always careful to write in the ex-president’s distinctive choppy style. “I’m the bretwalda. The bestwalda… Great thoughts, all my own,” says the account bio. Because this nickname seems to be cyclical, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before President Joe Biden is compared to Æthelred, too. In any case, even if comparing politicians to Æthelred the Unready is a well-worn path by this point, Donaeld the Unready proves that parody is alive and well and that with a little ingenuity, even the most predictable epithets and legends can be made original again.

The two other pre-Norman monarchs most often invoked in modern culture, Alfred and Cnut, have more flattering nicknames. They are both called “the Great,” but neither of them gained their epithets until hundreds of years after they died. Alfred and Cnut have legends surrounding them that come from much earlier, though. 

Alfred is known for the tale of how he burned the cakes when staying at an isolated cottage, getting scolded in the process. For centuries, it was thought that the cake-burning story was associated with Asser’s The Life of Alfred, which would make it a contemporary story told by someone who knew the king personally. However, scrutiny in the last couple centuries has shown that the tale is later than Asser’s biography. Its earliest version actually came from a work known as The Life of Saint Neot, probably written about a hundred years after Alfred’s death. In the 1500s, a version of the story was copied into The Life of Alfred by someone who erroneously believed the tale was written by Asser. These days, academics are certain that the tale is not contemporary with Asser, but as Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge say, “the ‘damage’ had been done… Long accepted on the highest authority as having been told by Asser himself, the story of Alfred and the Cakes gained wide circulation and attained the fame which it enjoys to the present day.”[1]

The willingness and ability to scrutinise sources, Hilliard argues, is vital to the functioning of a modern democracy.

Even though the beloved cake-burning story wasn’t written down until later, that doesn’t mean it can’t teach relevant lessons. In a 2017 LinkedIn article, the legend’s development is used as a cautionary tale in accepting assertions at face value and failing to fact-check them. Dani Hilliard, reflecting on a lecture by Michael Wood, writes, “any ‘truths’ that we may have held as being representative of Anglo-Saxon England were based on a series of interpretations that were not as well-founded as perhaps they should have been.” The article goes on to emphasise just how important it is to “think like a historian” during the age of fake news. The willingness and ability to scrutinise sources, Hilliard argues, is vital to the functioning of a modern democracy. That doesn’t mean the Alfred legend must be discarded, just that it should be recognised for exactly what it is – a story. 

Cnut is also famous for a possibly-apocryphal story: the tale of how he tried to command the tide. Just as with Æthelred and Alfred, there is more here than meets the eye. The original story of Cnut and the waves is actually attempting to show him as a pious ruler who wants to teach his sycophantic followers a lesson. He wants to show them that no one, not even the king, is mightier than God. To prove it, he commands the tide not to come in. Sure enough, the tide comes in and the point has been made. The story we most often hear today, though, interprets Cnut as a delusional ruler who thinks he is so powerful that he can command the tide. As with Æthelred’s punning nickname, the nuance has been lost. When the tide comes in, the same point is made in the modern retelling, just with the opposite effect: no one is all-powerful, but Cnut comes off as someone who believes his own flattery too much and is then humiliated for it. Today, the comparison to Cnut and the waves is used as a shorthand way of saying someone denies reality. It usually (but not always) follows the more modern interpretation, where Cnut is a fool, rather than the earlier portrayal of him as a wise and savvy king.


A black-and-white depiction of King Cnut, facing a group of courtiers to the left and holding his hand out towards the sea to his right.
Cnut demonstrating that he cannot hold back the tide. Engraving, 1848.

For example, a November 2020 article in The Guardian directly compares Trump’s efforts to hold onto power to Cnut’s delusions about the tide, saying that the president was “waging an increasingly hopeless fight against reality itself, and the inexorable march of numbers that refused to heed his command. It was Canute-like stuff: deranged, arguably, and dangerous for democracy, for sure.” Similarly, a letter to the editor at The BMJ uses the tale to make a point about Covid testing: “Governments are no better than King Canute, sitting on the beach, and asking for the tide to retreat,” the writer laments. “Covid is like a flood nobody can stop.”  

The tale of Cnut and the tide is also mentioned in a recent business article in The Irish Times about how companies should prepare for the worst regarding Covid, not stick their heads in the sand. “Canute is proverbially renowned for his arrogance in setting his throne on a sea shore and commanding a tide to cease its inexorable rise to wet his feet, to the consternation of his advisers,” writes Chris Horn. “That events can be controlled by sheer willpower alone still remains an illusion even today.” This is one of the more remarkable recent references to Cnut and the waves, though, because in another part of the article, the author displays knowledge of the original, more positive tale but uses the modern one to make a point anyway.

A Carnegie Europe article about Brexit goes further, choosing to use the older version of the story exclusively. Peter Kellner uses it to point out that Boris Johnson does not have Cnut’s political self-awareness, while also providing what might be the quickest, yet most precise, summation of the tale’s original intent: “The point of the story is not that Cnut was an idiot, but that his courtiers were… Cnut went along with the ploy, not to show that he was all-powerful, but to prove that he wasn’t.” There are far too many recent references to Cnut and the tide to mention here, so these represent the tip of the iceberg and nothing more. As it turns out, there might be more references to Cnut and the tide than there are to Æthelred’s nickname and Alfred and the cakes combined.

It does not matter so much whether Æthelred was unready, whether Cnut actually embarrassed his advisors on the beach, or whether Alfred took shelter in that cottage.

The enduring presence of these names and stories in modern discourse shows just how connected our world remains to its shared medieval past. Alfred, Æthelred, and Cnut have provided us with convenient stock characters to invoke when in need of a quick allegory or parable. In a way, through modern invocation of their names and stories, these three monarchs have transcended their original lives. It does not matter so much whether Æthelred was unready, whether Cnut actually embarrassed his advisors on the beach, or whether Alfred took shelter in that cottage. What matters is that these medieval rulers have remained part of our culture for over a thousand years and still have some lessons to teach us about ourselves.

Brandon M. Bender

@brandonmbender4

“The enduring presence of these names and stories in modern discourse shows just how connected our world remains to its medieval past.”


Notes

[1] Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (London, 1987), p.163.

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